By Patrick Skene.

30th September 2021

The story of the proud Māori men that saved rugby league! As one of the greatest ever NRL finals series draws to a close, its worth pausing to remember a group of Māori pioneers who were responsible for saving Australian rugby league from financial ruin.

When Australians talk of rugby league’s history, the contribution of their Māori brothers in the early and fragile part of the game’s development is rarely mentioned. The Māori are often classed as recent interlopers to the NRL who should be grateful for the opportunity. The historical record tells another story.

In fact, Māori were a crucial stakeholder at the genesis of Australian rugby league in 1908.

“We Māori were partners at the very founding of the game in Australia,” explains Howie Tamati, former Kiwis hooker and ex President of the New Zealand Rugby League.

 “We are a concrete part of the foundation. Not many people know it, but the proceeds from the “All Māori” tours of Australia were crucial in saving rugby league in its moment of crisis.”

And a crisis it was. The 1908 inaugural Kangaroos tour of England had been a financial disaster with the English authorities having to pay for their trip home. The game’s backer JJ Giltinan, was declared bankrupt and many feared the 1909 season would not go ahead, leaving the game stillborn and the players returning to rugby union. 

The game was on its knees and needed a saviour and up stepped a group of heroes who set off across the Tasman in a steamer. 

Those rebel Māori rugby union players, who sailed into Sydney Harbour in 1908 under a cloak of secrecy, had told authorities in New Zealand they were embarking on a rugby union tour.

Instead, they joined the brand-new game, and led by brilliant All Blacks defector Albert Asher, they learnt the rules and played 12 games in Sydney, Newcastle and Brisbane,

Their entertaining style & hakas attracted big crowds and the proceeds fended off the looming bankruptcy. According to the National Museum Australia: “Almost overnight, the league’s financial problems disappeared and the club season was saved.”

The All Māori returned in 1909 for a second tour to play another 10 games and they left behind their centre, Peter Moko, who joined Glebe and became the first Māori import to play in the Sydney competition.

The financial windfall from both tours helped the NSWRL dominate rugby union and create the iconic national institutions that NRL clubs are today.

Sadly, many of the touring team did not fare well on return. They were considered ‘unclean’ and treated terribly by the rugby union backed authorities and community with some unable to get jobs, dying penniless as pariahs.  

“They saved the game and it’s sad because they returned home as outcasts,” says rugby league historian Terry Williams. “It’s a historical blind spot.”

Howie Tamati adds. “The All Māori teams sacrificed themselves for the cause of rugby league.”

A salute to the historical All Māori heroes!